Nature’s Secrets

Clean Water Act at age 40

May 5, 2013 

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center.

What is the vitality and necessity of clean water?
Ask the man who is ill, who is lifting his lips to the cup.
Ask the Forest.

— Mary Oliver, poet

Turning 40 often inspires human reflection, change or reinvention. Although not a person, the Clean Water Act had its milestone birthday last year and is about to face some midlife challenges.

Arguably one of the nation’s most powerful environmental laws, it has provided Americans with four decades of legislation that empowered the federal government to safeguard an environmental resource.

The act mandated that all waterways be “fishable and swimmable.” With that, it served fishermen, boaters, swimmers and beachgoers; homeowners along water courses; municipal water suppliers – and the biodiversity that depends on fresh water. With the stroke of a pen, it switched the burden of responsibility for fresh water from the citizen to the industries that were polluting water (technically called “point source polluters”).

It further defined the rights for all Americans to enjoy public waterways without health hazards.

After 40 years, have all American waterways achieved the standards of the Clean Water Act?

While Ohio’s Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire, other waterways still fall short. But when water is compromised – such as with the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico – the Clean Water Act allows the federal government to take swift action against the perpetrators.

Future challenges are many. What about “non-point source” polluters such as households whose septic systems are adding sewage to our water table? Or urban stormwater surges that overtax drainage pipes of coastal cities and wash toxins into the water column? What about the increasing percentage of substances entering our water supply that are not easily filtered by conventional means – such as caffeine, Viagra and estrogen?

The Clean Water Act may just face a midlife crisis; an updated version may be required to address new challenges to our fresh-water supplies.

Each American uses approximately 2,000 gallons of water a day. Our water footprint is at least twice as high as the global average, yet two out of five women in the world still walk long distances every day to obtain a few gallons of water for household use. Access to water – specifically, access to clean water – is still out of reach for the majority of people on Earth.

At its ripe age of 40, the Water Quality Act continues to set high standards of social equity throughout America with regard to fresh water. It provides a global model where economics and environment can work together to safeguard human health. From all of us water lovers, happy birthday to the Clean Water Act.

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online:

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